(Corrects spelling of Candomble in fourth paragraph)
By Peter Murphy
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - A Brazilian toddler is making a good recovery after surgery to remove the first of 31 sewing needles pushed into his body by his stepfather in a cruel act that has enraged locals, the hospital said on Saturday.
The 2 1/2-year-old boy, underwent a nearly five-hour procedure on Friday to remove two rusted needles from near his heart and two more from one of his lungs.
His stepfather, 30-year-old Roberto Carlos Magalhaes, has been arrested and confessed to putting the needles in the boy's body at the behest of his lover who said the act would help the two to stay together, police said.
The pair were guided by a local practitioner of an African-Brazilian religion, Candomble, and Magalhaes inserted the needles into the boy at his lover's home.
The boy was brought to a small local hospital by his mother, Maria Souza Santos, after complaining of pains and was eventually transferred to the Ana Nery University Hospital in Salvador, the capital of the northeastern state of Bahia.
"It was a delicate operation. They had to open his thorax. There are needles of all sizes," said hospital spokeswoman Susy Moreno. "The ones from the heart were 4.5 cm (1.75 inches). There are others of 2.5 cm (1 inch)," she said.
The O Globo newspaper's website quoted one police officer saying that Magalhaes intention was to kill the child and that the needles had been inserted over a period of a month.
Local media said Magalhaes was taken from the police station in the boy's home town, Ibotirama, where he and the two other women were being held, and transferred to an undisclosed location before revolted locals gathered at the barracks.
"There is a whole commotion from the community (at the hospital)," Moreno said. "There are people bringing toys but no one has access. Someone rang up crying. He said he had a grandson of the same age," she said.
The boy will undergo further surgery next week to remove more of the needles from his intestines and bladder but Moreno said some may be left in his body if doctors the decide they would not cause him harm and enable him to avoid more surgery.
Moreno said he was awake and talking on Saturday afternoon and was soon to begin eating again.
"Before the surgery he was crying a lot and had trauma. His mother is with him and he is being attended to by psychologists and there are play activities for him," she said. However, he remained lying down in bed.
Bahia is the heart of African influence in Brazil, where many people practice Afro-Brazilian religions that combine spiritism, indigenous and African beliefs.
(Editing by Jackie Frank)